Saturday, April 23, 2011

Before the Dark Years

While the way that TSR looted the corpse of SPI was shameful (and likely had a deleterious effect on the wider hobby), it had one positive effect from the perspective of my youth: the advent of the "Ares Section" of Dragon. I've always been more of a sci-fi fan than a fantasy one, so knowing that every issue of Dragon would devote two or three articles devoted to the genre each month was a good thing in my view. (This also probably explains why the issues of Dragon I was most fond of ran from 80s to the early 100s -- corresponding very closely to the lifespan of the Ares Section).

Gamma World was well represented in the Ares Section, frequently presenting articles penned by creator James Ward, which I appreciated, given my obsession with official-dom. One of my favorite articles from Ward was published in issue 88 (August 1984), called "Before the Dark Years." It presents a historical timeline of the Gamma World setting, beginning (as all post-apocalyptic timelines do) in 1945 with the first use of nuclear weapons and ending in 2450, which was the approximate start of the 2nd edition of the game (1st edition began later, in 2471 -- why the change, I wonder?).

It's true that the article appealed to me back then because it scratched a completist urge to know it all, an urge I have long since -- and happily -- abandoned. But back then it was simply awesome to know, for example, that the starship Warden was launched in 2290. Re-reading the article, I still love it, but for rather different reasons. I like it for entries like this one:
2322 – Procesed-iced asteroid (guidance circuits damaged by terrorists) strikes Mars; eight-year duststorm and climatic disruption result. All colonies on planet isolated; Federation charter suspended for the duration.
Or this one:
2331 – Trans-Plutonian Shipywards assume control of their own programs and generate robotic "life."
The reason I love entries like these is that they hit home that Gamma World's apocalypse doesn't happen in the here and now but in a science fictional future. That ought to be obvious, given the presence Mark VII blasters and black ray guns and so forth, but, somehow, it's easy to forget, perhaps because, in the 70s and 80s, worrying about the End of All Things focused on the present, not the future. Indeed, lots of people didn't think there would be a future, thanks to the Damoclean threat of Armageddon.

Gamma World didn't take that approach. Instead, it's set in the future and the weapons that usher in the Dark Years include not just nuclear missiles but also "dimension-warp" devices and other weaponry undreamed of in our age. I think that set Gamma World apart from other post-apocalyptic games, imbuing it with a more "wondrous" quality and also, if I may wax sociological for a moment, making it a little less frightening to kids like me. The Morrow Project, to cite one example, postulates that the End would come in 1989 as a consequence of Cold War foolishness and, however absurd its specifics, that was a scenario many people genuinely believed might occur in their lifetimes. But a 24th century terrorist group called the Apocalypse? Using dimension-warp weapons and striking at not just Earth but space colonies as far away as the Oort Cloud? That's clearly fantasy and a lot less terrifying.

As I noted recently, my preferred way to play Gamma World is to treat the post-apocalyptic world as largely a blank slate, one utterly unfamiliar to the characters, who not only grew up generations removed form the Fall, but are played by people for whom even the pre-Fall world is alien. That pre-Fall world included settlements on the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere, is supported by robots, cyborgs, and A.I.s, and is launching extra-solar colonization efforts. That creates a lot of scope for terrific adventures and campaigns; I might even go so far as to say that, as developed in this and other articles, Gamma World provides a canvas every bit as large as that offered by Dungeons & Dragons. Sadly, the game has largely been treated as a joke by its custodians over the years, its full potential never quite realized and that's too bad.

19 comments:

  1. I would have to agree with your last sentence. What Gamm World needs is someone to take it forward as a serious setting. I think the comic-book/cartoonish artwork that frequently accompanies the products has to take a great deal of the blame for this. The artwork ranges from pulp-esque at one extent of the range to deliberately farcical at the other.
    I have to admit that for a very long period I had a hard time looking past the artwork and often farcical, tongue-in-cheek content to see the serious themes and issues beneath the shallow veneer.

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  2. The version of Gamma World done for 3e was a serious take. Ironically, it received a lot of flak for taking Gamma World seriously from the general public at the time.

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  3. The version of Gamma World done for 3e was a serious take. Ironically, it received a lot of flak for taking Gamma World seriously from the general public at the time.

    Did it? My only recollections of GW 3e were that the rulebook was missing large sections of its contents and that the whole game had been faddishly retro-fitted to use a universal result table à la Marvel Superheroes.

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  4. " but, somehow, it's easy to forget, perhaps because, in the 70s and 80s, worrying about the End of All Things focused on the present, not the future. Indeed, lots of people didn't think there would be a future, thanks to the Damoclean threat of Armageddon."

    - sadly, it's not just fashions & music from that era that are back again.....

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  5. @James: Ah, by 3e I mean the version done for the Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons ruleset. That Gamma World version was done by Sword & Sorcery Studios (basically White Wolf) and is technically the 6th Edition of Gamma World. Sorry I was unclear.

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  6. Ares killed Gamma World when it had a Cryptic Alliance called 'Empire of the Sun' which had Manga-like giant robots.

    Really, really, really stupid.

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  7. James...

    http://paratime.ca/gamma/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Gamma-World-Dragon-Article-Index.pdf

    Every Gamma World article that ever appeared in Dragon Magazine. Enjoy. :-)

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  8. Joseph, you may find that James is quite familiar with that edition of Gamma World. Check the list of contributing authors. ;)

    There was another 3e/d20 version published in Polyhedron between the Alternity campaign setting version and the White Wolf release.

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  9. I remember that 6th edition. They seemed quite proud that they had ditched most of the mutations for the much more 'realistic' nanotechnology and cybernetics.

    If memory serves they actually took up space explaining to the reader that radiation can't give you superhero mutations. They seemed to seriously believe players of previous editions were under that impression and needed to be set straight.

    It might have been an OK game for us if it had been completely decoupled from the Gamma World name, but we took a pass on it. It wasn't just for the above reason mind you, but versions of Gamma World that throw out the whole 'gamma' bit don't really have appeal for some reason.

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  10. It's kind of funny how intense our semi-arbitrary preferences for 'furniture' can be. I was all about dragons and bored to death by spaceships. So I always raged at all the wasted page-space that ARES consumed...

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  11. Folks tend to think that the game should play like a joke, or that its too goofy to be played seriously, but the game's bast strength is that it can be played seriously and cartoony.

    You can play it like a grim hard-edge Mad Max movie, where life and death can comes as easily as getting an infection from a simple scratch, you can play it like one of those highly abstract European cartoons that is set in a universe totally alien from our own, or you can mix it up, and have something that is both hardcore serious and off-the-wall silly.

    If you make it too serious, then the games gets really depressing or overly technical. If you make the game too silly, the game become a big joke. On the other hand, adding lighthearted humor can help to defuse the tension with dealing with grim apocalyptic survival. Its like that Woody Allen movie Sleepers - a guy wakes-up in a grim dystopian future, and comedy ensues.

    Even heavy drama have their lighthearted moments. Its all moderation!

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  12. When I first played Gamma World, it was during the publication of TSR's fourth edition of the game. My junior high buddies and I somehow missed the "jokey-ness" of the game and tried to play it straight. It was only until I returned to the game years later that I was clued in to the very silly way that GW was often presented, and it caused me no end of cognitive dissonance. While Mutant Future supplants GW as my post-apocalyptic game of choice these days, I try to stick to the fairly "straight" way we envisioned/played it, rather than the goofy/gonzo approach.

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  13. 'But a 24th century terrorist group called the Apocalypse? Using dimension-warp weapons and striking at not just Earth but space colonies as far away as the Oort Cloud?'

    I would have gone with 'singularity in the Sun.' Realism in a hand basket. They are making those now over at CERN in Switzerland and the one on the USA/Canada Border.

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  14. Joseph, you may find that James is quite familiar with that edition of Gamma World. Check the list of contributing authors. ;)

    Quiet, you!

    Yes, I did contribute to the technology book (Out of the Vaults) for the D20 version of Gamma World and I made it my goal to re-introduce into the game some of the weird and wonderful aspects of the original game. I don't feel I succeeded very well, especially in light of the game's overall, well, embarrassment at its own past. It's a shame, too, because I actually think D20 Modern was a solid basis on which to build a new version of GW.

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  15. "They are making those now over at CERN in Switzerland and the one on the USA/Canada Border."

    Fermilab is a good 320 miles from Canada, via Detroit.

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  16. @Esper...Er...Why? What about that idea isn't cool? We can have hover cars and deaths rays but a really large robot is stupid? Does is infringe on Gamma World's...um...re (snicker, chuckle) realism? Muwahahaha! Sorry, couldn't hold it in.

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  17. @ Barking Alien.
    I reckon it has a lot to do with genre expectations. In the minds of a lot of gamers these days, giant robots belong in Manga or Battletech. Not post-apocalyptic games. Back then though, I'd have thought they would fit right in.

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  18. I figure they belong where you want them. And of course, not where you don't. But just because I don't feel like putting ray guns in my D&D doesn't mean Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was silly.

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  19. I don't feel I succeeded very well, especially in light of the game's overall, well, embarrassment at its own past. It's a shame, too, because I actually think D20 Modern was a solid basis on which to build a new version of GW.

    Embarrassment! That's a perfect way of putting how they seemed to feel about the game's legacy.

    I can say that D20 Modern worked well for 'Darwin's World'. At least for the group I played with anyhow. It seemed to channel the spirit of GW that the game that licensed the name sadly lacked.

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